Hoisted from the comments on Scott Alexander’s ethics/IRB nightmare, an insight I hadn’t seen before:
Most research admins are willing to admit the “winging it” factor among themselves. For obvious reasons, however, you want the faculty and/or researchers with whom you interact to respect your professional judgment…
So of course you’re not going to confess that you don’t really have a clue what you’re doing; you’re just puzzling over these regulations like so many tea leaves and trying to make a reasonable judgment based on your status as a reasonably well-educated and fair-minded human being.
What this means in practice is almost zero uniformity in the field. Your IRB from hell story wasn’t even remotely shocking to me. Other commenters’ IRB from just-fine-ville stories are also far from shocking. Since so few people really understand what the regulations mean or how to interpret them, let alone how to protect against government bogeymen yelling at you failing to follow them, there is a wild profusion of institutional approaches to research administration, and this includes huge variations in concern for the more fine-grained regulatory details. It is really hard to find someone to lead a grants or research administration office who has expertise in all the varied fields of compliance now required. It’s hard to find someone with the expertise in any of the particular fields, to be honest.
And, to bring home again the absurdity:
Nobody expects any harm from asking your co-worker “How are you this morning?” in conversation. But if I were to turn this into a study – “Diurnal Variability In Well-Being Among Office Workers” – I would need to hire a whole team of managers just to get through the risk paperwork and the consent paperwork and the weekly reports and the team meetings. I can give a patient twice the standard dose of a dangerous medication without justifying myself to anyone. I can confine a patient involuntarily for weeks and face only the most perfunctory legal oversight. But if I want to ask them “How are you this morning?” and make a study out of it, I need to block off my calendar for the next ten years to do the relevant paperwork.